HAITI: I Can’t Stop Thinking About Her

It’s been three weeks since I returned from Haiti and a fortnight since Hurricane Matthew made landfall along the southern coast of the Caribbean island, bringing its category-5 devastation to the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.

And in the time that has passed since my first visit to Ayiti (as they say in Creole), I can’t stop thinking about her.

Not the demure yet mighty woman named Josef, a 49-year-old farmer and mother of 12 from Haiti’s Central Plateau region, who gave birth to her first 11 children at home. It wasn’t until varicose veins compelled her to seek medical treatment at a local USAID-funded Project Medishare clinic that she learned about contraception and family planning. Josef delivered her youngest child, now age 7, in a hospital and then underwent a tubal ligation. Given the choice, she wasn’t interested in expanding her brood to a baker’s dozen.

Not Raphael, Josef’s fiercely bright 21-year-old daughter, whose first child died in infancy, and who now gets quarterly injections of Depo-Provera so she can decide when or whether she wants to become pregnant again. Haiti has one of the highest fertility rates (3.5 babies per woman) and at maternal mortality rate (359 per 100,000 live births) that is the worst on this side of the planet.

Not Chantal, the soft-spoken, exhausted mother of two-month-old baby Jackson from the Delmas 32, perhaps the commune (neighborhood) of the capital city Port-au-Prince most damaged by the 2010 magnitude-7 earthquake. Nearly seven years later, most of the rubble has been cleared and many repairs made in Delmas 32, but we still had to step carefully (several of my traveling companions slipped and fell) as we made our way through the steep-and-narrow lanes to Chantal’s back yard, where the new mom (a beautician by trade) listened patiently as a community health agent from J/P Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO) talked about breastfeeding and infant nutrition while our delegation of journalists, philanthropists, activists, and others observed.

Not Destine, the 28-year-old wife of a voodoo priest and mother of four young children, who told us about her plans to have her tubes tied. She appeared to be as skeptical as the rest of our delegation when a community health agent extolled the virtues of what most of us might call the “rhythm method” while her youngest child, a baby boy, napped nearby on a grass mat in the shade of a pistache tree. I wish I’d snapped a picture of her world-class side-eye when a health official mentioned vasectomy as another viable family-planning option. (So far, we were told, precisely one man has taken advantage of the free vasectomies offered by the nearby clinic.) Meanwhile, there’s a waiting list for tubal ligations.

Mothers and children wait to be seen at the Medishare clinic in Marmont, Haiti.
Mothers and children wait to be seen at the Medishare clinic in Marmont, Haiti.

Not the dozens of women—some babes-in-arms mothers, some married, some single, and more than a few young women standing on the threshold between adolescence and adulthood—and a few men, too, waiting in long queues to meet with health counselors on what turned out to be World Contraception Day (Sept. 26) at the Medishare clinic in the Central Plateau town of Marmont, about two hours north of Port-au-Prince. Marmont, where fully a third of children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition, is mostly unremarkable but for one disturbing statistic: before the 2010 earthquake, the mortality rate for children under five was 187 per 1,000 births—the highest in the country.

Not the scores of mothers with children who lined the corridors and courtyards of the GHESKIO Hospital in Port-au-Prince. Some had come so their kids could receive vaccinations that protect against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping-cough, hepatitis B, and a kind of influenza that causes pneumonia and meningitis. But others had brought their children to GHESKIO for treatment in its pediatric AIDS unit. As we walked the grounds of the hospital, one of the doctors said something that stopped me in my tracks: The busiest HIV clinic in the Americas —in the Western Hemisphere—is a pediatric clinic in Port-au-Prince. Founded in 1982, GHESKIO was the first health care institution in the world dedicated to the fight against HIV/AIDS. And Haiti’s HIV/AIDS programs are among the most successful anywhere. The HIV-infection rate is just 1.7 percent overall—that’s about 130,000 people living with HIV—but each year GHESKIO’s pediatric AIDS department still sees about 800 babies, the majority of whom receive pharmacological treatments that prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to child.

Not the grandmother—or was she the mother—of the emaciated infant in the GHESKIO pediatric ward being weighed by a nurse. She was so thin. Malnourished. Wizened. Just like the baby she never took her eyes off of while the hospital staff dutifully and tenderly administered their expert care. I had to walk away. Too much. Too much….

Not Dr. Marie Marcelle Deschamps, GHESKIO’s passionate, indefatigable general secretary—the heroic physician who, for 33 years, never has looked away or allowed anyone else the luxury of doing so if she could help it. A native of Port-au-Prince, as a young woman Deschamps went abroad to study. “I returned in 1982 and I said I will never leave again,” she told us, adding that about 80 percent of Haiti’s “trained human resources,” i.e. physicians and other professionals, flee the beleaguered island nation, never to return. “If you stay, you are an optimist,” she said. The optimistic doctor has helped GHESKIO evolve into a center for comprehensive health care—particularly for Haiti’s most vulnerable women.

The Port-au-Prince metropolitan area is about the same size as Chicago, with a population of 2.6 million and no sewer system. Today, GHESKIO is flanked by The City of God and The Eternal City—massive slums that an estimated 200,000 Haitians call home. Deschamps recalled how, as a child, she would ride bicycles with her father along Le Boulevard Harry Truman, a central thoroughfare through the capital city that runs in front of the hospital. “Can you imagine?” she says to the latest assembly of sweaty, well-intentioned visitors to her busy hospital. “How did we let this happen?”

The busiest HIV clinic in the Americas

—in the Western Hemisphere—

is a pediatric clinic in Port-au-Prince.

After the earthquake in January 2010 killed more than 250,000 people, injured another  350,000, and left 1.5 million homeless, the GHESKIO campus became home to a tent city of more than 7,000 refugees. When the worst cholera epidemic in recent history broke out a few months later, Deschamps and her colleagues pivoted, creating a vast community health outreach that went into the City of God where the cholera outbreak did its worst. To date, the hospital has treated more than 33,000 cholera patients and helped to immunize more than 50,000 at-risk residents of the City of God against the water-borne disease. Deschamps’ latest project is a rehabilitation and training program for women (many of them survivors of sexual violence) where they learn an artisanal craft or skilled trade, such as sewing textiles, print making, mask making, and high-end carpentry—empowering women with actual power tools. Her energy and ingenuity, like her stubborn optimism, seem boundless.

As our group left the hospital after a couple of hours, I flagrantly broke two cardinal rules of journalistic detachment: I hugged the good doctor and I got choked up. “Merci, Dieu, pour cette femme,” I whisper-prayed in her ear. “Thank you, God, for this woman.”

But Deschamps isn’t the her who hasn’t left my mind since I left Haiti.


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(All photos by Josh Estey/CARE unless otherwise noted.)

The woman I can’t stop thinking about is someone I never saw.

On Sept. 25, our delegation, led by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, visited a J/P HRO health clinic in Delmas. Frist is a medical doctor, heart-lung transplant specialist, and longtime champion of health care in the developing world. He was instrumental in the creation and passing in 2003 of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (better known as PEPFAR), a program that has supported lifesaving anti-retroviral treatment (ART) for more than 9.5 million people worldwide. Frist’s group, Hope Through Healing Hands, and CARE organized our “learning tour” of Haiti. The actor and activist Sean Penn, bless his heart, who spent many months living and working in a tent city on the golf course at Port-au-Prince’s Petionville Club among 50,000 displaced Haitians after the 2010 earthquake, founded J/P HRO, which continues to do impressive work on numerous fronts, including health care—no small gesture in a country where an estimated 40 percent of the population has zero access to basic health care and nutritional services.

While we listened to a doctor at the  J/P HRO clinic talk about community outreach and maternal health, I thought I heard a woman cry out and then moan. It was a Sunday afternoon, so the urban clinic was not busy and, therefore, relatively quiet. I kept taking notes and asked a few questions in my limping French. Then I heard it again: the unmistakable, primal sound of a woman in the throes of labor.

I couldn’t see her, but I could hear her.

I don’t know her name or whether she gave birth to a boy or a girl or both. I don’t know how old she is, whether it was her first childbirth, one of many, or her last. I don’t know if she is married or single or a widow or divorced. I don’t know whether she wanted the baby or if the thought of its birth terrified her.

I don’t know.

A week almost to the hour after our plane bound for Atlanta left Port-au-Prince, Hurricane Matthew arrived with its 145-MPH winds and misery, dumping an average of 20 inches of rain (and up to 40 inches in some areas) on an island where everything is unstable, from the government to the actual land itself—given to erosion and landslides after 200 years of rampant deforestation. There is scant infrastructure in Haiti of any kind and the country is still struggling to find its footing nearly seven years after the devastating quake.

The hurricane battered Port-au-Prince, but not as badly as it did the southern coast of the island where entire communities such as Les Cayes and Jeremie, were practically decimated. The death toll from Haiti’s latest natural disaster has exceeded 1,000, an estimated 175,000 people are homeless (again), and the UN says urgent humanitarian aid is needed for 1.5 million Haitians—about 15 percent of the entire population. And as the flood waters begin to recede, standing water throughout the country means Haiti is bracing for yet another torrent of water-related diseases, including a potential cholera outbreak worse than the last, not to mention malaria and Zika.

Back home in California, I’ve watched television coverage (such as it was and what remains) of the aftermath in Haiti. I’ve read the news, the analysis, and the pleas for aid from all quarters. (For suggestions about how and where to donate, click HERE or HERE.) In church and out, I’ve prayed for Haiti, for the people we met, and the millions more we didn’t. The morning the hurricane hit, Laura Sewell, CARE’s director in Haiti, told NPR there were 60,000 pregnant women in the country’s  south region alone. “What’s going to happen to those women,” she asked.

What happened to those women? What happened to the woman laboring in Delmas the week before? I’ve sent emails asking after her. So far, no word.

Still, I hear her courageously birthing new life and new hope into Haiti—a place too many people dismiss as hopeless.

And I just can’t stop thinking about her.

A Few of My Scribbles…

from the ONE/(RED) World AIDS Day concert at Carnegie Hall earlier this week, from

‘The old joke goes something like this:  A musician walking down Manhattan’s 7th Avenue stopped a passerby and asked, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
The cheeky New Yorker answered, “Practice, practice, practice.”
For Bono and the organizations he co-foundedONE and (RED)—the answer Tuesday night in New York City’s historic music venue was, “Progress, progress, progress!”

Read the post in its entirety HERE.

Give a Gift with Purpose from the ONE Shop

598430_509984075689869_726163983_nThere is still time to order #GiftsthatGive for Christmas and Hannukah from the ONE Campaign’s Shop — including the gorgeous scarves made by fashionABLE in Ethiopia exclusively for the ONE Campaign pictured above.

Read about the women weavers from fashionABLE who make them HERE.

Happily, fashionABLE is completely sold out of their inventory for the year (which means, among other things, the organization/company has been able to hire three more women since I visited their factory in Addis Ababa with ONE Moms in October!)

So the only place you can still order fashionABLE scarves in time for Christmas is the ONE Shop. Woot!

Please enjoy a special ONE Moms | ONE Dads | ONE Mums Friends and Family discount of 25%. At checkout, use code: ONEFRIENDS25

*Discount expires 12/21/12 at 11:59 pm ET
Ground=$6.99 order by 3 pm ET 12/19
2-Day=$10.99 order by 3 pm ET 12/20
Next Day=$18.99 order by 3 pm ET 12/21


Mother Africa: Weaving a Hopeful Future

When I think of weavers, what comes to my mind are the ladies in the back of the knitting store in my Southern California hometown, the ones who hang out on weekend afternoons with their handlooms – weaving cloth shawls, blankets, or the occasional modern tapestry.

Here, weaving is, by and large, a pastime. Some would call it an art form. The ladies in the back of the knitting shop are craft weavers. We might consider them “artisans” and laud them for mastering the truly ancient craft.

In the West, machines do most of the commercial weaving, not people. In Ethiopia, and elsewhere in the developing world, handloom weaving is most often an occupation for men and one that isn’t usually heralded for its artistry. Weaving isn’t a prestigious job and, by and large, those who weave are the working poor.

Traditionally, men are the weavers. I’ve heard what felt like an odd gender role (from my American perspective) explained as merely a function of physiology. Handloom weaving requires the strength – and therefore the physical mass – to batten, which is the term used to describe moving the beater (a long metal or wooden bar that is used to keep the weft thread or yarn in place).

Women spin the wool or cotton into thread that’s loaded onto spools and then strung onto the loom’s warp (lengthwise thread) and weft (the thread that weaves in and out of the warp thread.)

The sound of handloom weaving is unmistakable. The shush of the Flying Shuttle – a small missile-shaped object, often fashioned from dogwood, that holds the weft thread – as it’s thrown through the shed, or warp threads. The slam of the beater. The click of the heddles.

In Addis Ababa last month, I could hear the weavers at fashionABLE, a faith-based non-profit that has partnered with a local organization that helps women exploited by the sex industry to change their lives.

(Learn more about fashionABLE’s story in video form HERE.)

Founded by American Barrett Ward, who spent a year in Ethiopia after launching in 2005 his Mocha Club – a cadre of activists who pledged to give up the cost of two mocha drinks (or about $7 a month) to fund relief and development projects in Africa.

While living in Addis, Ward, who now lives in Nashville with his wife and two daughters adopted from Ethiopia, encountered the Women at Risk organization and saw how effectively it worked to restore dignity and health (mental, physical, spiritual) to women trapped in prostitution. An estimated 150,000 women work as prostitutes in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capitol, alone – and about 75 percent of those women are HIV-positive.

When Ward learned that one of the mightiest challenges to keeping women off the streets and out of the clutches of the sex industry was work that paid a living wage, the idea for fashionABLE was born.

Working hand-in-hand with Women at Risk, which boasts a 90 percent success rate (i.e. non-recidivism) among the more than 350 women who have passed through its 12-month rehabilitation program since 1996, fashionABLE teaches former sex workers how to spin, dye, and weave cotton into truly beautiful scarves (I’m wearing one as I write this) that are sold in the U.S. at high-end retailers such as Fred Segal in Santa Monica, Calif.

FashionABLE exports to the United States under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which permits the export of certain African goods to the States, duty-free and quota-free. (Under AGOA, Ethiopia has exported $13.8 million worth of goods to the U.S in 2011 – primarily textiles, apparel, and agricultural products such as coffee and khat.)

Each scarf created at fashionABLE bears the name of the woman who made it. It’s a small but radical act, a thread in a new garment the women are trying on for size, a future with ample hope and grace.

Today I am wearing a white scarf with various stripes and textures woven near the tassels at the bottom. The woman who made it is Bezuayhu. She’s 19.

“My parents had passed away and I used to live with my aunts and grandparents,” Bezuayhu says on the organization’s website. “They always wanted me to work and not to go to school. So, I came to the city, and there I came to this life of prostitution.Now, it feels so good to get up in the morning and say I am going to work. It feels so good to have a scarf named after me. I’m so proud to be called a scarf maker.”

Her tag reads: Because of you, I am ABLE to look forward to my future. Thank you.

I had the pleasure of meeting Saba, a beautiful young woman with a warm smile who made the purple scarf I gave my son’s godmother as a gift upon my return to California, at the modest fashionABLE compound in an industrial area of Addis.

With Women at Risk’s founder Serawit “Cherry” Teketel serving as translator, Saba spoke (in her native Amharic) about her life before and since arriving at fashionABLE. Listen to Saba tell her story below:

The message on Saba’s tags?

Because of you, I am ABLE to feel pride in my work. Thank you, Saba

At Muya Abyssinian Crafts, a fair-trade company in Addis that employs about 150 weavers — both men and women — who make high-end textiles for European and American designers, including Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede’s Lemlem line at J.Crew, I learned something fascinating.

Muya, which means “talent” in Ge’ez, the language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, also employs potters who make various earthenware vessels, such as coffee pots and intricately hand painted guinea fowl figurines.

Jacques Dubois, a native of France who has lived in Ethiopia for more than 40 years and is co-owner of Muya, told us that when the company first approached the potters about making exportable goods, they balked at the idea. They saw no artistry in that work, Dubois explained, and could not believe that anyone outside of Ethiopia would want to buy them.

The coffee pots and urns were simply utilitarian and those who made them — the potters — at the low end of the pecking order in Ethiopian society, Dubois said.

Why? Because they work with fire and fire is, according to tradition, he said, associated with the devil. Ergo, potters are practically outcasts.

On the wall of the room where several women crouched at their work stations, painstakingly painting white dots on large black guinea fowl figurines, polishing dappled vases, or weaving long grass through the edges of a decorative plate the color of polished onyx, were posters and framed renderings of Christian icons, including the Virgin Mary, who seemingly bestowed their blessngs on the artisans as they worked.

Muya is the first Ethiopian company to obtain membership in the World Fair Trade Organization and is deeply committed to social responsibility, Dubois explained. The weavers and other craftspeople employed by Muya make substantially more than their counterparts elsewhere, and the company helps enroll workers’ children in better schools. The company subsidizes its employees meals so that they can save their money and spend it to feed their families, and also runs a training program for female prison inmates, teaching them spinning, weaving, and other marketable skills so that when they’re released, they can better support themselves.

Dubois proudly introduced me to one of Muya’s “master weavers,” 24-year-old Solomon, who has worked at Muya for more than six years. The middle child of seven, Solomon told me about what weaving at the fair-trade company has meant to him — and his family.

“I am the spinal cord of my family,” Solomon, who grew up and still lives about 1 km from the Muya factory. “It’s not just me,” he said, explaining that the work allows him to support his parents as well as his siblings, three of whom are enrolled in university. His younger brother earned a degree in engineering and is now a teacher.

An obviously bright young man who is tremendously proud and grateful for the work he does at Muya, Solomon is also aware of the tangible effects of the global marketplace and efforts to level the playing field, such as AGOA, have on his life.

“I am grateful to the Europe and North America because now there is a market,” he told me. “I need to work, but I need a market, too.”

Listen to more of my conversation with Solomon below.

Muya’s products are not yet available for purchase online, but you can browse its collection HERE or at J.Crew.

FashionABLE’s scarves are available for order online HERE.

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Last month, Cathleen traveled to Ethiopia as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.

Photo credit: All photos, video and audio by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.

Ethiopia: How Foreign Aid Has Helped a Generation

A local woman walks past a field of corn, in a village near Lalibela, Ethiopia. Photo by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.

LALIBELA, Ethiopia — You know the images you have in your mind of Ethiopia from 27 years ago? The ones from the nightly news reports on TV about the famine in the Horn of Africa as the death toll and horror stories grew.

Scorched, cracked earth. The carcasses of emaciated, dead cattle lying in the baking sun. Hundreds of thousands of stick-thin refugees wandering in the dust, hoping to have enough strength to make it to a camp that might have water and food. The babies and children with orange hair and distended stomachs — indications that they were in the advanced stages of malnutrition and starvation.

I am happy to report that the Ethiopia of 2012 is not the Ethiopia of 1985.

Thanks to global efforts (Live Aid, etc., back in the day), foreign aid, and the very real efforts of the Ethiopian government and people themselves, the land I saw earlier this month looks nothing like those old images in my mind. In fact, parts of the country that we traveled through were so verdant and lush — farmlands rolling out in various shades of green like a St. Patrick’s Day quilt  — that if you’d blindfolded me when I got on the plane and taken the blind of when I stepped of the bus in the rural area outside Bahir Dar near the Sudanese border, I might have thought I was in Ireland’s County Kerry rather than Ethiopia’s Amhara Region.

Ethiopia is beautiful. In every way. Its people. Its resilience. Its ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit. In the way it cares for its land and its people, and the way they care for each other and their visitors. There is a spirit in Ethiopia I’ve experienced elsewhere only rarely.

In a word I’d call it HOPE. But it’s a hope not based on daydreams and fairytales. It’s a hope based in hard work, smart planning, and forward thinking.

The ONE MOMS/ONE MUMS group I traveled with to Ethiopia this month spent a few days out in the northwest of Ethiopia, visiting hospitals, clinics, agricultural collectives, demonstration farms, and a remarkable group of women bee keepers (but I’ll save that for a future post.)

What those few days in the Amhara region put regal faces, calloused hands, quick minds, strong backs, and busy feet to the statistics we hear so often about foreign aid to the developing world — Africa in particular — and what financial resources from the U.S., U.K., and the rest of the G8 (and their posses) can and cannot do on the ground half a world away.

Let me tell you what I saw: A lot. Epic change. Hope for the future. Plans to avert disasters — “natural” or human-made.

In 1992, the proportion of the Ethiopian population that was undernourished was 69 percent. Today, the percentage of undernourished Ethiopians is 41 percent. That’s still a lot of hungry people, but it’s a dramatic decline in 20 years. Infant mortality in Ethiopia is one of the highest in the world (68 per 1,000 live births) — but that rate dropped 39 percent between 1990 (when the rate was 111 deaths per 1,000 live births) and 2010, according to UNICEF.

Ethiopia also has reduced the under-five mortality rate by 47 percent between 1990 and 2010.

“These achievements are largely a result of Ethiopia’s investment in a community health system and a cadre of 35,000 health workers who provide front-line care,” Dr. Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), wrote in the May/June issue of Frontlines magazine. In a nation where only 10 percent of births occur in health facilities, community health workers — skilled in birth attendance and equipped with affordable tools to save the lives of mothers and newborns — serve a critical role.

“But despite this significant progress, one in 11 children in Ethiopia do not live beyond their fifth birthday,” Shah wrote. “Development is full of problems we have few ways to solve. Helping children reach their fifth birthday is not one of them.”

Here are a few statistics (because I know some of you have an easier time getting your heads around numbers than stories) that speak to the challenges Ethiopia (and elsewhere in the developing world) still face:

  • In 2011, Ethiopia’s under-five mortality rate was 88 child deaths per 1,000 live births (and childhood mortality is higher in rural areas than it is in urban areas.)
  • 29 percent of children under the age of five are underweight, and 44 percent of all children in Ethiopia are stunted
  • Only one in every four children 12-23 months old has been fully vaccinated (according to 2011 statistics) — but that is a 19 percent increase since 2005.
  • Ethiopia has a high maternal mortality rate — 676 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2011.
  • In Ethiopia, 30 percent of all deaths of women ages 15-49 are pregnancy related, and only 34 percent of pregnant women receive post-natal (or antenatal, as they call it in Ethiopia) care from a skilled provider after their most recent birth
  • According to 2011 figures, the most significant barriers in Ethiopia that prevent women from seeking adequate pre- and post-natal care are the distance they must travel to the nearest health facility (66 percent), the availability of transportation to the health care facility (71 percent), and a lack of money (68 percent.)
  • 7.6 million children worldwide under the age of five die every year because they don’t have access to basic life-saving interventions such as vaccines and bed nets
  • 370,000 children are born every year with HIV, transmitted to them by their mothers

OK. So that’s the bad news.

But there’s good news, too, and lots of it, from what I witnessed in person across Ethiopia.

There is a new program, run by the Ethiopian government and funded by USAID, called the Integrated Family Health Program (IFHP). It’s a five-year program (begun in 2008) that ultimately is expected to reach half of the Ethiopian population with training and services to improve health practices both in individual households and in communities at large. One of the program’s big pushes is to get young children fully immunized. So, for instance, when a mother or parents come into a health center or outpost to discuss family planning — Ethiopia is encouraging the use of long-term contraception such as Depo Provera injections or sub-cutaneous contraceptive implants — their child or children can be immunized at the same time.

The USAID’s IFHP works side-by-side with an innovative program of the Ethiopian government itself called the Health Extension Program. The Ethiopian government had trained and salaried more than 35,000 health care providers — the vast majority of them women — and dispatched them to 286 districts in the country serving approximately 32 million people. Most of the people served by Health Extension workers live in rural areas where hospitals and clinics are few and far between. They go out to the villages and make old-fashioned house calls, providing services from prenatal exams and post-natal follow-ups to immunizations and basic health care needs.

I had the privilege of meeting some of the Health Extension workers and they are an extraordinary bunch. Young, ambitious, and seemingly tireless. Their work has been credited with the 28 percent decrease in under-5 child deaths, literally saving the lives of 560,000 children since 2005. Amazing.


Listen to one of my traveling companions, the marvelous British ONE Mums blogger Michelle Pannell (aka @michelletwinmum) talk about our visit to the health centers below as you view the slide show of my photos from that amazing day in rural, northwest Ethiopia.

At the end of 2011, a severe drought began in the Horn of Africa, leading Ethiopia’s neighbor to the east, Somalia, officially to declare a famine in June. The drought is believed to be the worst in more than 60 years, affecting more than 13.3 million people — echoing the emergency and images of the famine that struck Ethiopia in the mid 1980s. But this time, in Ethiopia, the story unfolded differently because of a safety net. After a severe drought hit the country in 2003, with the help of USAID and other foreign donors, the Ethiopian government launched a food security program — the Productive Safety Net Program.

This safety net “ensures families living on the edge are not forced to sell off their assets, mainly livestock, in order to feed their families,” Dina Esposito, director of USAID’s Office of Food for Peace, told Frontlines magazine earlier this year. “The labor, the quid pro quo for those fit enough to partake, is channeled into public works projects designed to improve communities as a whole.”

Watersheds and irrigation systems were built. Canals were dug, and schools and health clinics were constructed or rehabbed by workers who were at the risk of becoming food insecure. According to USAID, today, because of Ethiopia’s safety net program, 8 million people receive assistance in a timely and predictable way, and crises — like the famine of the 1980s — have been averted.

Our group visited a USAID-funded project — Empowering New Generations to Improve Nutrition and Economic Opportunities (ENGINE) — that compliments the Ethiopian government’s food safety net program in Lalibela, a rural district about 150 km from the urban center of Bahir Dar. The program, focused on women and their children, strives to improve nutrition and financial stability by teaching new agricultural and nutritional skills.

We visited what is called a “demonstration farm,” nestled in the verdant rolling hills and farmlands, where goat, sheep, and cow herders passed by on their way to and from pasture land. At the farm, ENGINE workers have planted new crops — such as beet root, cabbage, carrots, chard, and other greens — that are rich in nutrients and vitamins in the hopes of getting local mothers to introduce them into their everyday menus.

Women from the surrounding villages come to the farm for classes, learning about cultivation, nutritional values of the new foods, and, perhaps most importantly, how to prepare the vegetables ways that preserve their nutritional content best. This led to one of the more enjoyable outings of our sojourn in Ethiopia: a food demonstration where mothers (many of them with a toddler at their elbow and an infant nursing at their breast) watched as ENGINE workers showed them how to prepare the traditional porridge — a starchy staple in Ethiopian diets, particularly among children — with a nutritional and protein boost by adding legumes to the grains, and then stewed or chopped carrots, greens, beets, etc., to the mix to give it flavor and more vitamin power.

Baby food! It was so simple and yet so brilliant. By adding a handful of ground beans and a soupcon of Swiss chard and mashed carrots to the porridge, children would receive a complete protein in one dish.

At the end of our visit to the farm and baby food cooking demonstration, I was asked to say a few words to the villagers — mostly mothers and girls, but a few men looking on from a safe distance, too. I told them (in English, as a USAID guide interpreted for me) that while we may look different and sound different than they do, we are essentially the same. They are our sisters. Their children are our children. And we care for them, want them to be healthy, and succeed, just as we do our own children.

I said it was an honor  — a blessing, realy — to meet them, that we would share their stories with the rest of the world so that other mothers in other countries who are struggling to make ends meet, feed, and care for their children, would be encouraged.

And I told them that we would remember them and pray for them.

I hope you might join me in that effort, praying for their continued strength and tenacity, and giving thanks for the same. I also hope you will join me in reminding our politicians in this election season that U.S. foreign aid does make a difference. It saves lives. It changes whole communities and can help transform a whole generation.

Let’s do what we can to make sure foreign aid stays safe and that our budgets aren’t balanced on the backs of — or by mortgaging the lives of — the poorest of the poor.

Below you can see a few images from the farm and cooking demonstration.

They are such beautiful people — in every way.


Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.

Photo credit: All photos by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.

Read more of Cathleen’s posts from her Ethiopian journey by clicking on the links below.

What Americans Think About Foreign Aid Might Surprise You

Ethiopian Orthodoxy, Tawahedo, and ‘Being Made One’

GGNFT (Ethiopia Edition): Teddy Afro

Ethiopia: The Face of God

Ethiopia: Motherhood is Powerful, Precious

Ethiopia: God Is Even Bigger Than We Think

What Americans Think About U.S. Foreign Aid Might Surprise You

Children outside the Anbesame Health Center in rural northwest Ethiopia. Photo by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.

In an OpEd that appeared on POLITICO Monday, Mike Huckabee, the former Republican governor of Arkansas, and Blanche Lincoln, the former Democratic senator from Arkansas — who together co-chair ONE Vote 2012, a non-partisan campaign to make global health and extreme poverty foreign policy priorities in the 2012 presidential election, wrote about the importance of maintaining U.S. foreign aid to the developing world that has helped make significant improvements in the health and sustainability of myriad nations, including many on the continent of Africa.

They wrote:

We recognize that Americans today are suffering at home from one of the worst economic recessions in modern history. We understand that there might be temptation to cut back on U.S. humanitarian programs and investments abroad. However, the cost of cutting back on such programs is not worth it. Not even close. It would affect too many peoples’ lives and damage American economic and national security interests at a time our world is more interconnected than ever.

It might come as a surprise to learn that less than one percent of the U.S. budget is spent on foreign assistance. It might even be shocking to discover that, despite this relatively small amount, these funds are literally saving millions of lives and improving the lives of many more millions of people.

For example, American investments in cost-effective vaccines will help save nearly 4 million children’s lives from preventable diseases such as pneumonia and diarrhea over the next five years. We’ve also helped to deliver 290 million mosquito nets to Malaria-stricken countries, and put 46 million children in school for the very first time. And thanks to the leadership of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, 8 million HIV/AIDS patients now have access to life-saving treatments, up from just 300,000 a decade ago, making an AIDS-free generation a real possibility within our lifetimes.

A healthier, less impoverished planet is good for all of us.

Read the post in its entirety HERE.

Our friends at the ONE Campaign spent 48 hours asking everyday Americans what they thought about US Foreign Aid.

(Source: The ONE Campaign)

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.

Read more of Cathleen’s posts from her Ethiopian journey by clicking on the links below.

Ethiopian Orthodoxy, Tawahedo, and ‘Being Made One’

GGNFT (Ethiopia Edition): Teddy Afro

Ethiopia: The Face of God

Ethiopia: Motherhood is Powerful, Precious

Ethiopia: God Is Even Bigger Than We Think

Ethiopian Orthodoxy, Tewahedo, and 'Being Made One'

An illuminated book of scripture the monk at Entos Eyesu told us dated to the 7th century. On the right is St. George on his white horse, slaying a dragon.

LAKE TANA, Ethiopia — Spirituality imbues every corner of Ethiopian culture, from its music and dance, to its artwork and even its unrivaled rich-as-the-earth coffee.

Home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world (having adopted Christianity as its official state religion in the 4th century), the sites and sounds of Christendom were ubiquitous wherever we traveled in country this month.

Art and iconography — both ancient and modern — from Ethiopian Orthodoxy (also known as Tawahedo or “being made one” in the Ge’ez language that remains the official language of the Orthodox liturgy here) were ever-present — in shops, restaurants, and hotel lobbies as well as in the myriad churches and monasteries, and the sounds of ancient Christian prayers and the chants of monks filled the air from the capital city of Addis Ababa to the kebeles (or neighborhoods) on the outskirts of Bahir Dar, another major city about 60 km from the Sudanese border that was once intended to be the capital itself.

The religious population of Ethiopia today is about 63 percent Christian (the vast majority of those adherents members of the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition) and 34 percent Muslim. There is also a tiny, but historic, Jewish population, the Beta Israel, who live in northwestern Ethiopia. In the 1990s, however, most Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israel through diaspora relocation programs run by the Israeli government known as Operation Moses and Operation Solomon.

Each morning in Addis and Bahir Dar, I’d awoke to the sounds of the Muslim call to prayer, or azan, emanating from the minaret of a nearby masjid and, often, soon after (and sometimes at the same time) the ancient prayers from an Orthodox church or monastery, mixed with the cock-a-doodle-doo of the occasional rooster and the omnipresent barking of dogs. You can hear a snippet of that intoxicating, otherwordly chorus of sound below.

While visiting Bahir Dar, capital of the Amhara region or kilil, which boasts a population that is more than 87 percent Ethiopian Orthodox, my traveling companions from ONE Moms and ONE Mums (our British sisters) — 14 of us in all — boarded two small pontoon boats docked on Lake Tana for what was described as a “three hour a tour” (“a three hour tour…” a la Gilligan’s Island) of one of the 20 medieval monasteries built on some 37 small islands in and around the lake.

After a 40-minute journey (where the weather did not start getting rough and our tiny ships were not rocked) we alighted at a rocky inlet, surrounded by a canopy of bowing mulberry trees, on a small island, Entos Eyesu, home to a monastery that is, as I understand it, reserved only for women. The adjacent island, Kebran Gabriel, houses a much larger monastery, church, and compound, but alas … no girls allowed.

Several academic sources date the Entos Eyesu monastery and church to the 17th century, with some attributing its construction to the Portuguese under the auspices of Emperor Fasilades, and more recently renovated (perhaps by an Egyptian monk), which explained why some of the elaborate paintings and frescoes that decorated the interior of the monastery looked so freshly painted.

Entos Eyesu is beautiful, but perhaps not quite as historically “important” as some of the other island monasteries, each established somewhere between the 13th and 17th centuries as a kind of hermitage for Christian contemplative monks, but later used as refuges to protect important artifacts of Christendom — including the a number of ancient sacred texts, the mummified remains of several Ethiopian emperors and, reportedly, the Ark of the Covenant (which, according to the Bible, contains the stone tablets upon which are written the Ten Commandments), which Ethiopians now believe to be housed inside the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum.

Whether Entos Eyesu was less “important” in an historic sense didn’t seem to matter to our motley band of would-be pilgrims, among us a couple of nonreligious Jews, several renegade Evangelical Christians, a lapsed Catholic or two, a Latter-day Saint, and a handful of what sociologists of religion might call  “nones” these days. Setting foot on the island, a reverent hush descended on our normally chatty lot as we walked along rocky paths through the lush jungle of mango and banana trees, up a steep set of stone steps to the monastery/church itself.

A round domicile with a pitched, metal roof topped by a stylized Coptic cross, we stopped outside its stone and cement walls to take off our shoes and cover our heads with scarves. Once inside, though dimly lit, the round room — built around a small “holy of holies” room that houses a tabot, or replica of the Ark of the Covenant secreted behind banana-yellow locked doors — the paintings covering the walls, depicting biblical and historical scenes from Ethiopian Orthodox history and lore, exploded in a riot of colors.

Jesus is featured, as he would be, in many of the paintings. He’s depicted as mixed-race, appearing much like a modern-day Ethiopian. There were scenes from Hebrew Scripture, such as Abraham being interrupted by an angel (and a ram caught in a thicket) as he was about to sacrifice his son, Isaac; the massacre of the infants by the order of Herod (who’d hoped to kill the newborn King of the Jews in the process, but was thwarted when Mary and Joseph took their infant son to Egypt); Jesus ordering a servant boy to pour water into jugs (which the Lord then turned into a very good vintage wine) in his first miracle; the healing of a leper; Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem on a donkey for what we call Palm Sunday; the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the last judgment.

Ever present — alongside Jesus, Noah, and other biblical figures — is St. George (patron of Ethiopia, always shown decked out in royal regalia atop his white steed, slaying a dragon) and the Archangel Michael.

Everyone in the group solemnly snapped pictures of the artwork and various religious artifacts, before putting our shoes back on and heading down the hill to our boats. On the way down, a few of us stopped in a small museum (about the size of an average American walk-in closet) where a monk showed us a few manuscripts — some of them brilliantly illuminated with hand paintings — that he claimed were from the 7th century. I lingered in the small space as three young Ethiopian women from the hotel where our group was staying in Bahir Dar who had accompanied us on our lake adventure, stood rapt, hanging on the young monk’s every word (all of which were spoken in Amharic.) Maya, one of our ONE Moms who is a native of Ethiopia, translated bits and pieces for me.

But I didn’t really need to know what the monk was saying. I was struck far more by the posture and reverence the young women, including Maya, had for the obviously sacred space in which we were standing.

We finally returned to the boats, where the rest of our group was waiting patiently, and on our journey back to Bahir Dar, I began thinking about pilgrimage and how, perhaps, what you believe (or don’t) actually doesn’t matter. It’s the journey itself that makes it sacred.

Tewahedo, the name of the the Ethiopian Orthodox church, means “being made one.” How appropriate for our group — ONE Moms and Mums from the ONE Campaign, an organization co-founded by Bono of U2 who wrote a song years ago, also called “One,” with the lyric:

We’re one, but we’re not the same, we get to carry each other.

That’s what our trip to Ethiopia was all about. That’s what the ONE Campaign and ONE Moms are all about. We — all of us humans — are in most ways the same, and it is our responsibility (and our blessed vocation) to carry, care for, and mind each other. We may look, sound, think, eat, walk, talk, dress, worship, and believe differently, but we are, essentially, the same.

My story is your story. Your story is my story. Or, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu is fond of reminding us, there is another word for this idea: Ubuntu. It’s an African word (that I have tattooed on my back), which means, “I am because you are.”

We are one.

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.

Read more of Cathleen’s posts from her Ethiopian journey by clicking on the links below.

GGNFT (Ethiopia Edition): Teddy Afro

Ethiopia: The Face of God

Ethiopia: Motherhood is Powerful, Precious

Ethiopia: God Is Even Bigger Than We Think

GGNFT (Ethiopia Edition): Teddy Afro

God Girl’s New Favorite Thing for Oct. 12, 2012:
Ethiopian Pop Star Teddy Afro

ADDIS ABABA — Pretty much everywhere we’ve gone in Ethiopia this week, we’ve heard Teddy Afro’s voice.

The 36-year-old Ethiopian singer whose given name is Tewodros Kassahun or ቴዎድሮስ ካሳሁን in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia, is sometimes referred to as the “Michael Jackson of Ethiopia.” But, to my ear at least, he’s more the equivalent of, say, Ethiopia’s Usher (if he were more political, that is.)

Afro’s debut album, 2001’s Abugida, spawned several hit singles, including “Halie Selassie” (his tribute to the late Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie I), and “Haile, Haile,” which honored Ethiopian Olympic runner Haile Gebrselassie.

It was his third album, 2005’s Yasteseryal, the release of which coincided with a national election in Ethiopia, seems to have put him on the map and squarely in the crosshairs of some members of the government. Its themes of peace, unity, social justice and true political reform managed to irritate some politicans than the government banned four songs from Yasteseryal.

Afro has a new album out called Tikur Sew (the Amharic for a “black person”) that’s getting a lot of play over here. It’s his first new album since his arrest, trial and imprisonment on hit-and-run manslaughter charges in 2008 — charges that many maintain were spurious and politically motivated. The singer served a little more than a year of a six-year sentence before an appeals court released him for good behavior.

The video for the title track of his new album, Tikur Sew, is “based on the historical Battle of Adwa (March 1, 1896) in which Ethiopian forces, under the leadership of Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taytu Betul, defeated the invading Italian army and secured Ethiopian sovereignty,” according to its official English description on YouTube.

Afro’s music is can be catchy and kitschy, or controversial and thought-provoking. Afro is an iconoclast that way — an iconoclast with a voice and beats that will make you want to drop it like it’s hot.

I’ll leave you with Afro’s tribute to Bob Marley (and dare you not to chair dance at least a little bit.)

Cathleen is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.

Read more of Cathleen’s posts from her Ethiopian journey by clicking on the links below.

Ethiopia: The Face of God

Ethiopia: Motherhood is Powerful, Precious

Ethiopia: God Is Even Bigger Than We Think


Ethiopia: The Face of God

BAHIR DAR, Ethiopia — When I posted this photograph of a beautiful little Ethiopian girl holding a daisy a few days ago, my friend  and fellow author Christian Piatt responded on Twitter with a four-word comment:


“The Face of God.”

Christian’s remark stopped me in my tracks … because it’s absolutely true.

The Bible even tells us so.

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. ~ Genesis 1:27

When I look into the eyes of the hundreds of Ethiopian children I’ve met, given high (and low) fives to, fist bumped, hugged, and waived to in the last few days, my thought is always the same: Oh my God, they are so beautiful.

What I didn’t recognize Christian’s profound four words is that Oh my God, they are so beautiful is also a prayer. A “wow” prayer, to borrow an idea from Anne Lamott.

Since Christian called my attention to the face of God, I haven’t been able to look at any of the remarkable souls I’ve spent time with here in Ethiopia without thinking about God’s face.

That Divine Spark reflected in our eyes. Our faces and bodies, hearts and souls all beautifully and wondrously made in the image of the Creator.

Nowhere is the face of God more evident than in the faces of children. They haven’t learned to cover up their divine face with masks yet, like so many of us adults have. Their joy is pure and unfettered, as is their fear and pain.

Below you can see for yourself what I’m on about — the face of God in the faces of a few of the hundreds of Ethiopian children I’ve been immensely blessed to meet on my journey to their truly sacred land. (More on that last bit in a forthcoming post.)

Oh my God, they are so beautiful.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

All photos by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.

Cathleen is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.

Read more of Cathleen’s posts from her Ethiopian journey by clicking on the links below.

Ethiopia: Motherhood is Powerful, Precious

Ethiopia: God Is Even Bigger Than We Think

Ethiopia: Motherhood is Powerful, Precious

Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

~ Proverbs 31:8-9

ADDIS ABABA — These words of King Solomon have been running through my mind since our ONE Moms delegation — 13 mothers from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France — arrived in the Ethiopian capital on Sunday.

I hear these verses as a clarion call to action. As someone who strives humbly to follow the Way of Jesus and be involved in The Work that God is doing in the world, I want to respond and do what these verses command.

And as a believer who also happens to be a mother (a fairly novice one, still learning the ropes, if you will), I must do.

Sunday afternoon, after us ONE Moms dropped our luggage at the hotel, piled into our chartered bus, and drove to the outskirts of the city to the Mary Joy Aid Through Development Association, we met our Ethiopian sisters who are speaking out for those who cannot; who are advocating on behalf of the destitute, judging with righteous wisdom, and defending the rights of the poor and the needy.

The verses that follow Solomon’s charge in Proverbs 31 are well known. He goes on to describe the ideal woman, mother, and wife — the one who is “far more precious than jewels.” She is industrious, good with money, makes beautiful things with her hands, tends to the needs of her children (and those of others), has strong arms (here I picture Michelle Obama), rises early and works late, spins and weaves and sews.

“She opens her hand to the poor,” Solomon says. “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.”

And her children “rise up and call her ‘blessed.'”

As we alighted the bus at the gates of Mary Joy, dozens of Ethiopian mothers and children — from babes in arms to older teens — greeted us with flowers and mega-watt smiles that would light up even the darkest of places. They embraced us, kissed our cheeks, shook our hands, and then they broke into exuberant singing and dancing.

Our welcoming committee were those “Proverbs 31 women” that, as an evangelical Christian, I’ve heard so much about over the years. Such women are precious — and scarce. I have met only a true few in my lifetime. That is, until Sunday.

You see, the mothers at Mary Joy (with a few fathers as well), have heeded the words of Proverbs 31: 8-9 by reaching out to orphans, widows, the elderly, and others who are struggling to survive amidst poverty and tragedy such as the loss of the family matriarch or patriarch and breadwinner, disease (often HIV/AIDS), or some other cataclysm that has left them bereft, voiceless, alone on the margins of society.

Mary Joy, which is a non-religious, not-for-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO) has, since 1994, been working tirelessly to assist and empower women, children and families through a host of educational programs — from HIV/AIDS prevention and hygiene to nutrition and other vocational training — and by assembling a small army of “peer mothers” who act as stand-in parents for children who are parentless.

ONE Moms got to know the Mary Joy organization through one of our own members, Maya Haile Samuelsson, a model and native of Ethiopia who, with her husband, Chef Marcus Samuelsson, supports the education and wellbeing of 10 children at Mary Joy. (Maya’s even more beautiful on the inside than she is out — and she’s absolutely stunning; the picture of grace and a generous heart.)

UNICEF estimates there are 5 million orphans in Ethiopia — about 650,000 of them having lost their parents to HIV/AIDS. Of those orphans, more than 2 million live below the poverty line, which in Ethiopia is about 80 cents a day. Many thousands end up living on the streets.

During our visit with the mamas and children of Mary Joy, we were briefed officially by executive director about the work the organization does. But we learned so much more just by being with the mothers and kids as they celebrated life and welcomed us into theirs.

A group of adolescent boys performed acrobatics, juggled brightly colored bowling pins and blazing batons — one boy even filled his cheeks with lighter fluid and spit flames into the air as we collectively gasped the way mothers do.

And we danced. Some of us more gracefully than others, some of us with a child on our hip, or the hand of new friend in ours. But we all moved with joyful abandon.

We sat in a happy heap on blankets on the ground, flirted with babies, smiled at each other — affirming one another in that motherhood-is-global-and-mighty-powerful way that doesn’t need a common language to be understood. It just takes a look. Straight in the eyes. Deep into the soul. We see each other and we know.

It was a glory day. And it was the perfect the beginning of a journey here in Ethiopia, a land oozing with sacred spirit and beauty at every turn — perhaps most vividly in the places where people have the “least.”

In the slideshow below, you can see some of the faces of the mothers from Mary Joy and a few of my traveling companions from ONE Moms.

The journey continues with blessings, lessons, and audacious grace.

I’ll have more stories to share soon. (Dear St. Isidore, patron saint of computers and the Internet, please put in a good word for this weary traveler).

Thank you for joining us on this adventure.

If you’d like to learn more about Mary Joy or consider sponsoring one if its children, please click HERE.

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.

Bono’s Welcome at Wheaton College Does Grad Proud

You could say it was a sort of homecoming.

Since Saturday, I’d been on the road, bird-dogging U2’s Bono across the Midwest on his mission to save Africa from the one-two punch of an AIDS pandemic and the kind of poverty most Americans simply cannot fathom.

Wednesday, his Heart of America tour arrived at Wheaton College, and I found myself sitting in my alma mater’s chapel for the first time in a decade.

It’s a room I know well. I attended chapel there–10:30 to 11:15 a.m., three days a week, for four years.

Wheaton is a religious school in the truest sense. More than that, it’s an evangelical Christian school, dedicated, as the stone sign at the front of campus says, “For Christ and His Kingdom.”

Like many graduates, I had mixed feelings about my Wheaton experience after moving into the “real world.” I was out of town in October and missed my 10-year reunion, but I don’t know that I would have gone had I been in town.

Wheaton, like many other private colleges–religious or not–is a bubble. And I don’t care much for bubbles. I never felt comfortable in a community where my religious identity was presumed to define my politics, gender identity and taste in pop culture in a narrow way.

Not that Wheaton dictated what political persuasion (Republican), gender identity (definitely not feminist) or acceptable pop culture (Amy Grant, yes; Ani DiFranco, no) its students should adhere to. But there was an unwritten dogma about the secular world with which I did not agree.

Then, there was the matter of “the pledge,” a social contract all students are required to sign before they enroll. No drinking, no social dancing, no tobacco products, no gambling, no sex. It set up a hierarchy of sin and a dichotomy of those who kept the pledge religiously and those who did not. Some people were “strong Christians,” and others were not.

Wheaton had many fine attributes. By and large, students were compassionate, empathetic, intellectually curious and spiritually aware. But I left Wheaton feeling that Christianity, in the particular, narrow evangelical form found there, was not a place for me.

A lot changes in a decade. I stood a few feet from my senior-year assigned chapel seat and had an epiphany. Ten years ago, I’d sat in that seat, with a poster of Bono on my wall and dreaming of a life as a journalist. Now I was walking in here with that man, a journalist there to tell his story. I am blessed.

A few days before we arrived at Wheaton, Bono and I talked about the school and how different that venue would be from the large state universities he’d visit.

“If these are religious folks, I want to redirect them to the fire that is in the Gospels,” Bono said.

I told him I wasn’t sure how his message would play at Wheaton.

Amid the din of 2,000 screaming, clapping, ebullient students standing and howling for Bono and his band of humanitarians, I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong about the place.

“I am blown away by your joy,” Ashley Judd said.

For two hours, the Wheaties, as we called ourselves, listened raptly to Bono’s call to action and responded to fleece he laid before them. It was easily the best night on the tour, Bono would say the next morning.

“That was fantastic,” he said. “They asked tough questions. They asked the things people should be asking.”

Many of my friends from college apologize before they tell someone where they went to school. I’ve been guilty of that myself.

After Wednesday, I’ll never do that again.

Wheaton was, at least in those moments, the best of what Christianity can be.

I’ve never been prouder to say I’m aWheaton grad.

And I’m grateful to Bono for that sort of homecoming.

This column originally ran in the Chicago Sun-Times, where Cathleen was the religion writer and columnist from 2000-2010, on Dec. 6, 2002